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Media seek the story of the day at Tahoe

Sally J. Taylor

A celebrity died skiing on Monday. The second nationally

known figure in less than a week.

The coincidence made the tragic event a major news story.

Tuesday morning, an army of regional, national and international reporters,

photographers and commentators stormed the South Shore.

The call to news action came from reports that entertainer-turned-congressman,

Sonny Bono, died Monday afternoon after hitting a tree while skiing on the

Nevada side of Heavenly Ski Resort.

The tragedy followed close on the heels of an accident in Aspen, Colo.,

on Dec. 31 when a collision with another tree took the life of Michael Kennedy,

a member of the well-known, politically active and wealthy Kennedy family.

Satellite dish-carrying trucks lined up early Tuesday morning at Heavenly’s

main California lodge preparing for a 9 a.m. press conference on Bono’s

death.

“They’re just trying to get a good news story off someone dying,”

noted an unknown Heavenly employee as he passed the ranks of trucks.

Later, a skier passing by on his way to the lifts said he wanted to be

interviewed, too.

Both statements, cynical and flippant, express the range of reactions

Tahoe’s residents and visitors had to what is often called a media “feeding

frenzy.”

In the scurry for more information, half the calls coming into the Tahoe

Daily Tribune on Tuesday morning were from media wanting directions, comments,

photos and answers. Media callers included representatives from news venues

in New York, London and Melbourne, Australia, and represented such national

broadcasts as Dateline, Larry King Live and Hard Copy.

In the rush to find footage of Tahoe skiing for morning news shows, file

film that included a shot of the Sierra-at-Tahoe sign made its way onto

the national broadcasts of the Today Show for at least two showings before

phone calls corrected the situation.

“They saw ‘Sierra’ and saw ‘Tahoe’ and thought, ‘we’ll send this,'”

said Sierra’s director of marketing, Tracy Owen Chapman. “It didn’t

surprise me.”

Although the accident occurred at Heavenly, news crews also converged

on other resorts for such related stories as ski safety.

“John Rice (Sierra’s general manager) and I have taken crew after

crew after crew around up here,” Chapman said.

The largest army of media converged at Heavenly, where communications

manager Monica Bandows had been up most of the night fielding media inquiries

for maps, pictures, interviews and phone or electrical outlets.

Following the morning press conference, she prepared a group for one

of several snowmobile tours that Heavenly arranged to transport media people

to the site of the accident.

“It’s about an hour round-trip,” Bandows told the first group

of photographers to leave the main lodge. “Dress warmly, it’s extremely

cold,” she warned.

Many chilled media people made shopping trips into Heavenly’s ski shop,

where they replaced polished wing-tips and driving gloves with Sorels and

ski gloves. Others tapped into laptop computers, took notes or prepared

live broadcasts.

Cornell Barnard, a broadcast reporter for KXTV-10 in Sacramento, felt

“shell-shocked” following Heavenly’s 9 a.m. press conference.

Rousted out of bed at 12:45 a.m., he left Sacramento at 3:30 a.m. to get

the story.

“This is definitely a huge story,” he said, citing the “irony”

of two famous people dying in a similar manner within a week of each other.

Greg Larsen, of KCRA-3 in Sacramento, expected to be on the South Shore

“all day and all night. This isn’t going to end soon,” he said.

Such stories, for many journalists, are a chance to highlight situations

that need to be changed. The recent death of a snowboarder at Kirkwood Ski

Resort has raised discussions about the use of helmets. Many snowsport accidents

result from carelessness or not following resort rules such as staying in

bounds.

“Maybe this will bring attention to a serious problem,” said

Larsen, referring to reports that Bono may have been skiing out of bounds.

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